Political Issues and Debates

Broader conceptual or epistemological issues that have have political implications.

COVID-19, loss and trauma

The impact of social isolation

As I have previously argued, I do not believe that we are sufficiently discussing the mental health and wellbeing risks of the current crisis. I expect that there may well be a mental health crisis post-covid-19 as the impact of the pandemic and responses to the same, take hold. When our survival responses lessen and we can better contemplate the devastation. This distress is foreseeable and understandable. And while medicalising it may do more harm than good, it needs consideration and preparation at individual and collective level.

Human beings are social animals. Isolation is for most of us, not something we are designed to tolerate for extended periods of times. It is of course for that reason that it is used as an ‘effective’ form of torture and violence. Isolation has high costs. So much so that some researchers have proposed the adverse health impact of isolation are similar in magnitude to the health risks associated with obesity, smoking, lack of access to care and physical inactivity.

The risks are indeed serious. Social isolation has been consistently associated with poor physical, mental and cognitive health. It is correlated with depression, reduced sleep quality, impaired executive functioning, cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular health and impaired immunity at every stage of our life. It is therefore a risk factor for increased morbidity and mortality including death by suicide. Vulnerable groups are particularly at risk. As a nation, let us remind ourselves, we are not particularly well psychologically, to start with. We may even argue there was already a mental health crisis. Psychological distress is prevalent with increased concerns regarding many groups, children and older people, for example.

Trauma and loss

It is not only social isolation which threatens our wellbeing. The isolation we are dealing with is naturally associated with fear including the fear of death and of illness on a mass scale. As human beings we use powerful defences to deny our vulnerability and mortality. Repeated exposure to death and unexpected dying deeply disrupt our psychic equilibrium and, our sense of safety and stability. It affects how we view ourselves, make meaning and sense of the world as well as our sense of normality as our relational, financial and social resources are stretched or shift. Further, group exposure to suffering is likely to lead to massive stress responses at individual as well as at collective level.

Most of us worry or will worry about the welfare of relatives, family and/or friends. Many have lost and will lose loved ones. Bereavement is therefore likely to feature heavily as a response to this context of death and dying. How we experience this loss will depend on various factors including our background, personal history, worldview and the circumstances surrounding the loss. Sustained sadness, hopelessness, anger, guilt, and regret are nonetheless common responses to bereavement. In addition, grief can be activated when we are faced with any loss including loss of health, of independence, of financial security, of safety and even of worldview a such as the loss of a sense of justice or moral anchor. Again, understandable feelings likely to be widely experienced.

We speak of collective trauma to refer to the psychological responses to traumatic events that go beyond the individual and affect entire groups of people. Traumatic events, crises or catastrophes that are witnessed or experienced by many can have effects on an entire society, its culture, functioning as well as its psychic structures, leaving wounds and/or memories with the potential to shape future generations to come. Indeed, catastrophes and crises have been found to have profound and long lasting effects, often these are intergenerational, shifting behaviours, belief systems, attachment and safety seeking mechanisms in both helpful and less helpful ways.

Inequality and marginalisation 

The current crisis will be trying for most of us. Regardless of our mental health pre-COVID-19. Nonetheless, the impact of social isolation and associated losses and trauma will not be similar on all of us. Existing mental health inequalities in the prevalence of psychological distress for example will naturally have a direct influence on how the crisis is experienced and on its effects, once over. Those who struggle with anxiety for example or low mood may find the current circumstances particularly difficult and will remain at higher risk of psychological distress once the crisis is over.

How this risk is mediated will vary from person to person. However, feelings of entrapment and powerlessness are common in people who struggle with low mood, depression and suicidality. The lack of control and uncertainty associated with the pandemic together with the requirement to stay home can be expected to trigger helpless or claustrophobic feelings which may create or exacerbate low mood, depression and anxiety. Similarly, recurrently worrying about contamination and health coupled with a reduced availability of quality social support, may trigger or worsen anxiety related problems and, in particular, health anxiety and obsessive compulsive difficulties.

Racism is likely to be an additional compounding variable. As previously written the politics of the pandemic are racialised. Not only are groups of people of colour more likely to experience racism and hostility (e.g. people of East Asian ancestry) as we’re all watching, structural racism has reared its ugly head. Black and brown bodies are dying disproportionately. Exposure to racism and to these race inequalities in mortality rates is a form of vicarious and collective trauma. Further, groups with higher levels of trauma including racial trauma (people of African descent) are now being exposed to loaded cultural scripts such as the prospect of black bodies being experimented on. This is likely to activate distress including intergenerational and historical trauma.

Social economic status is another variable which will create further inequity. The evidence suggests that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are much more likely to develop and experience mental health difficulties. Added to this existing baseline, will be new or additional worries about money, precarity or debt. Moreover, there are real concerns over the stress which will be generated for those stuck in unsanitary (if not unsafe) housing and/or in overcrowded or unfit accommodation. Conditions which as we are started to see, will invariably lead to increase domestic and/or child abuse both of which will further fuel the cycles of psychological distress and mental health inequality.

There are clearly various groups who are at an increased risk of experiencing mental health ‘problems’ in addition to people of colour and poor people. They include women, those who identify as LGBTQI, those without a stable home, asylum seekers and refugees, those with physical disabilities and chronic health issues, and those who care for others. Those groups are not mutually exclusive and an intersectional approach is required to remember that health and mental health penalties and risks of harm, including risks of structural violence are cumulative and more severe in those with various vulnerable or marginalised identities. As a result, those with experiences of multiple traumas and/or who have faced more adverse life events, particularly experiences involving loss, separation, confinement or exclusion such as bereavement or bullying are likely to be even more vulnerable.

Resisting and looking after ourselves

It would be impossible to give a comprehensive personalised list of self-care or wellbeing activities which may help all of us look after ourselves, as individuals. Nonetheless there are general principles we can all try to follow to maximise our resilience and to limit the negative effect of the crisis on us. This is particularly important if you belong to a marginalised or vulnerable group.

The below is based on a short twitter thread, I wrote last week;

1) Stay connected. As much as you can. Use phone. Skype. FaceTime. Zoom. Make sure to hear and ideally see people everyday.

2) Limit the time you spend watching the news. There is little point in tracking terror inducing news every minute of the day or getting incessant alerts. This is likely to increase your anxiety. Once a day is plenty. Enough for most of us.

3) Plan pleasurable activities. Everyday. Schedule and diarise them. What brings a smile to your face? What brings you joy which you can still do at home? Music? (I recommend drum based and African music) Dancing? Reading? Make sure you do a little bit of that everyday.

4) Build stronger relationships with those in your household, if you don’t live alone. And if it is safe to do. Spend quality time with them. Talk (I know revolutionary, right?).

5) Related to that it is usually best not to bottle things up. Express fear, worry, anger, despair…, if you struggle to express yourself verbally consider writing or art. Painting and poetry can be very soothing and can help us process difficult emotions.

6) Keep active. Move. The government allows us to get out the house for exercise. Do it. Go for a long walk or a run. Also armchair exercises are good if you cannot leave the house. Plenty of videos on YouTube.

7) Laugh! Some of us have become expert at dark humour. It may not be your cup of tea. But again whatever makes you giggle wether watching a funny movie or cracking up jokes. Do this regularly. Actively seek to laugh. Be deliberate.

8) Structure your day. This is particularly important for those without work or other formal commitments. And even for those employed but unaccustomed to working from home. Consider planning in advance what you will do each day, stick to a routine. And again include things to be looking forward to.

9) Clean up your lifestyle. This is really about lifestyle hygiene. Try to eat ‘clean’ as often as you can. Tighten sleep hygiene as much as you can. Avoid overdoing it when it comes to alcohol or whatever else. Remember to be kind to yourself, this I would say is basic self-care.

10) Practice gratitude. I know this may sound counter-intuitive but the evidence base is solid. Try everyday to remember at least one or two things you’re grateful for. Little things & big things. This will help you to ‘catch the good’ to pay attention to beauty in the world too.

If you’re struggling please contact your GP, your therapist (if you have one).

The Samaritans 116-123 are available 24h a day.

Remember you are not alone and you will make it through.

If you’re in immediate danger call 999 (UK).

Thank you for reading

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of Race Reflections. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.

COVID-19, Racism and Eugenics: PART 1

Racial paranoia and pandemics 

When I was expecting my second child, I was taken ill. I remember getting into hospital 7 months pregnant with a fever in the early hours of the morning. Shaking and with Braxton-Hicks contractions. As I arrived in ‘Accident and emergency’, I was asked whether I had been to ‘Africa’ ‘recently’. I answered negatively. I had only been to Africa once, as a child about twenty years previously. Once booked in, I was asked the same question by the triage nurse who saw me. I once more said I had not. She assessed me then decided I needed to be admitted. I was taken to the ward and allocated a bed. A blood sample was taken from me by someone else, I believe a nurse. Once more I was asked if I had travelled to Africa. As far I as knew, I still had not.

I eventually saw the obstetrician while I was now in bed trembling, sweating, clearly anxious and with a rocketing blood pressure wondering what the hell was that illness I had that which was so serious and unknown I created such angst. I was again asked the same question. I was not treated with overt hostility. Rather with fear and apprehension and also with clear suspicion. As though I was guilty of bringing into the hospital something dirty or dangerous, some mysterious disease. Although no staff had the transparency to share their racialised concerns, as a black woman of African descent with an unexplained fever, I became a possible threat. A contagion risk. It clearly did not matter that I had not been to ‘Africa’. This could not be heard and contained. I became someone who could carry some deadly African disease. At times of collective paranoia as an aside, my blackness always trumps my Frenchness. Such is the power of racial tropes.

This experience occurred at the height of the Ebola media circus in case you had not guessed. Hence why I was asked four times if I had been to Africa. And, despite my repeated negations, I continued to be treated with a veil of disbelief and suspicion until I was diagnosed with a urine infection. It seems blackness + fever made concerns over Ebola overtake the care afforded to me, rather than the most common infection in pregnancy and, despite there having been very few cases of patients carrying the Ebola virus returning to the UK from ‘Africa’.  This is racial paranoia. Sadly but perhaps unsurprisingly the Braxton-Hicks contractions seemingly morphed into the real deal. In the end, I had to have an emergency C section a few hours after admission. I will never know whether the stress and anxiety I experienced in the critical first hours of contact with the hospital staff played a role in this clinical outcome. Perhaps. Perhaps not. We do however know that stress and anxiety have been linked to premature labour.

Across the world people of Asian backgrounds have become the targets of xenophobic and racist assaults. Both verbal and physical. There is no doubt that this violence is fuelled by racist political rhetorics and media circuses around the same. Trump for example has repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as ‘the Chinese virus’. In this context the mounting racial prejudice, discrimination, violence towards anyone who could be taken to ‘look Chinese’, is no accident. Further, the rampant racism has strong colonial echoes. The association between uncleanliness, and disease with people deemed of inferior races is a classic colonial trope. Indeed, fantasies and constructions of disease contamination and threats are central to the racist imagination. It is therefore not surprising that virus related fears would quickly become racialised and trigger racial hostility, suspicion and paranoia towards people racialised as Other. It would take very little to trigger this association which already exists in our collective or social unconscious.

From racial hygiene to eugenics

Black and brown bodies have been believed to be infectious liabilities since time immemorial. Still, the threat of a virus originating from China in the age of globalisation where China is widely believed to threaten to become the next ‘superpower’ that will wipe the West out of geopolitical and economic dominance; was bound to become a particularly sensationalistic hit and to arouse primordial angst, irrespective of external realities. Add to this, old colonial notions of exotic barbarism and ‘uncivilisation’ and fear of change and what we have is a recipe for deadly racial paranoia and aggression. Disease has been an ideological tool to maintain racial purity via brutal politics of segregation and racial protection implemented to avoid the spread of inferior characteristics or traits and therefore and to contain risks to Western civilisation. The term racial hygiene has been used to characterise Nazi politics of eugenics. The latter were marked by sustained campaigns to avoid so called miscegenation and were underlined by the belief in the existence of a racial hierarchy threatened by inferior races which thus pause risks of contamination to races constructed as superior.

The third Reich administration believed that the Aryan race the ultimate human race and, that it was superior because it was the purest. Aryans therefore occupied, according to Nazism, the top place in the hierarchy of all beings. Incidentally, they ideally had the whitest of white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. They also were often depicted as tall if not statuesque. Relatively young. They were of course never disabled (or gay). Those who did not match this description were deemed to be physically and intellectually inferior to various degrees. Non-Aryan races quickly became constructed within Nazism as impure, unclean, morally, genetically and intellectually inferior and evil thus, dangerous. The fascist idea of racial purity therefore does not only suggest the fallacy of an unsullied, authentic, original race or genetic pool, it calls for its protection from dilution and mixing.

The fear of contamination, the foundation of racial hygiene politics, is consequently itself reliant on fantasied threats to one’s nation’s health, welfare and security. Although these beliefs may seem far from us today, they really are not. The fear of contamination remains a powerful political device. It is weaponised for example to regulate immigration and gain popular support for draconian if not inhumane border control practices. Although racial hygiene may have transformed from overt into covert manifestations, the same racial thinking is in operation. The discourse of threat to national security and to public health and safety for example, is undeniably linked to the desire to limit migration from black and brown bodies originating from the global South. Therefore access to legal status, right of movement and travel continue to be distributed along racial lines so that those bodies deemed susceptible to carry disease, which could overwhelm the country (and the NHS) are kept under strict control and restriction. These bodies have, by and large remained the same bodies subjected to racial hygiene and eugenics.

Unsurprisingly thus, in addition to the politics of COVID-19 being played along racial lines, they are being played along the lines of health, ability and age. The real identity politics some of us would argue. Necropolitics. Controversial guidance is recommending that healthcare staff provide preferential limited life-saving resources such as ventilators, to those deemed to have more optimistic prognoses. Whilst these clinical decisions may be rationalised very easily, invariably they leave those with chronic conditions, disabilities or in old age at risk of murder or at best assisted dying without consent. Instructions which as a result, clearly reinforce ageist and ableist macro messages and social discourses about whose bodies is valuable, whose life is deemed to matter and what kind of existence is worthy of being lived. We are without any doubt in the domain of social eugenics. Of further note, these medical directives came about within a socio-political context of increased normalisation and social sanction of the systemic violence disabled people face. Again thus, we may argue the terrain has been prepared and that nothing we are currently witnessing came without our collective complicity and approval.

Concluding thoughts

This piece does not call into the question the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic. It does not trivialise the need for isolation. If anything I hope it makes a stronger case for those of us who are more social justice and equality orientated, to do all we can to stop the spread of the virus. The bottom line is, as always, it is the most marginalised, the less valued and more expendable bodies who will carry the burden of the costs of this crisis. We are living through unprecedented times, we hear… But amidst the COVID-19 global discourses, the terror, and anguish that the virus has created, there is much déjà vu. The corona virus is deadly. Still, arguably less deadly than famine, malnutrition and malaria which continue to cumulatively kill millions globally every year. Consistent with the blatant egocentrism and eurocentrism which sit at the core of the discourse of this crisis and in part its response, the pandemic is arguably exposing us to the worst of humanity. Including eugenics as the less socially valued lives are left to die or set to be left to die. Colonial antics as African bodies are once more becoming preferential sites for medical experimentation for a corona vaccine and, capitalist hoarding and greed as many with the means to do so, are liquidating stores of basic necessities and unscrupulous businesses are getting rich off the back of the most vulnerable. Earlier indications are that people of colour, including healthcare staff are disproportionately dying from the virus within social structures and, anti-Chinese sentiment and violence are soaring.  So we can add this to the mix. Again, we are living through unprecedented times, the story goes. And certainly the global response and management of the COVID-19 virus is unparalleled. Perhaps too sadly we are living through very familiar times, all too familiar for many of us as human pathology and dysfunction in all their glory are once more, laying themselves bare for us all to see.

Thank you for reading

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of Race Reflections. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details

Freedom of speech as silencing

Freedom of speech

Concerns over the alleged erosion of freedom of speech have dominated social discourses for some time. Many continue to bemoan the ‘undue’ caution dominant groups have been asked to exercise about the words they employ. As a result, arguments in defence of the so called ‘right to offend‘ have taken prominence in society as a way to protect this allegedly threatened ‘freedom of speech’. Uncritical discussions abound. And it can be difficult to take an informed position in the mist of common platitudes and alarmist headlines. Just this week the government announced it would be looking into legislation to help ensure the protection of ‘freedom of speech’ within universities, following the ‘no-platforming’ of Amber Rudd at Oxford University.

Freedom of expression is a human right. Although this right as I have previously argued, is not distributed uniformly in society. It nonetheless is a human right enshrined in UK law. It appears in article 10 of the Human Rights Act (1998) which itself incorporates into the legal system in the UK, the rights contained within the European Convention on Human Rights. Freedom of expression which includes freedom of speech (when such expression is in speech form) concerns the right to express one’s opinions or views, ideas or artistic or scientific creations etc…, the right to protest and, the right to receive information; without interference from the state or government (or those carrying functions on its behalf).

This is important. This means freedom of speech as it was intended as a human right, is about protecting individuals’ expression from the powers of the state and those carrying out public functions. Freedom of expression once more, quite plainly is about protection from state censorship, retaliation, violence and interference.  Freedom of expression is of course far from boundless. Something which also seems to get lost amidst heated political debates and controversies. In fact, after setting up freedom of expression as a human right, the Human Right Act goes on to add at 10.2;

‘the exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary’

In other words in my lay person’s understanding, freedom of expression has always been conditional rather than absolute and subject to various processes, rights and obligations. For example hate speech and incitement to hatred, trumps freedom of expression, speech which puts the health and mental health of others at risk can, at least in theory, be prohibited and, other ethical or moral reasons can curtail our freedom of expression. These restrictions exist to protect ‘public interest’ and the rights of others (and I would say the interests of State as an entity, but, this is conversation for another day).

Epistemic violence and silencing

The idea then that freedom of speech should be unrestrained amidst accusations of silencing is thus an interesting one, which I would says needs much attention, beyond the legal arena. In a previous paper I have referred to silencing as a discursive device with the purpose or effect of smothering unpalatable marginalised voices. Voices which are then purposefully made indecipherable. Such silencing serve various functions. Some functions are psychological such as the denial and repression of painful histories. Others are more structural such as the reproduction of inequality. Regardless of the function, silencing here is thought of as an act that denies the Other the functional use of their voice, thus agency and power. It is an act of violence.

Epistemic violence is ‘a type of violence that seeks to eliminate marginalised subjects’ knowledge. According to Dotson (2011) violence is enacted by denying marginalised voices reciprocity. And this lack of reciprocity is sustained through ignorance, a kind of commitment to misunderstanding or to epistemic incompetence which results in harm namely, damage to the speaker’s ability to give their testimony, to speak or to speak with authority and thus, to be heard. At group level, epistemic violence disappears marginalised forms of knowing and consequently reduces the availability of alternative epistemic perspectives.

Dotson proposes that silencing leads to two main practices of silencing; testimonial quieting and testimonial smothering. Testimonial quieting is in operation when a speaker is denied competence as a knower because they belong to a marginalised group. This, she refers to as an ‘active practice of unknowing’. This practice occurs when voices and knowledge of the marginalised are actively dismissed or discounted because of stereotypes and prejudices. That is to say, in testimonial quieting, marginalised voices are denied credibility and authority to speak because of racism, sexism and/or other systems of oppression.

Testimonial smothering on the other hand, is a form of self-censorship whereby the speaker perceives their interlocutor or audience as either unable or unwilling to understand them. This results in them Dotson say, ‘truncating their testimony’ and only speaking of those aspects of their experience they expect to be met with comprehension. In this case rather than being quietened, the speaker smother their own voice. They sensor their contents, and keep the parts of their experiences or stories they believe may be unsafe to share with particular audiences, to themselves.

Insidious reversing 

Freedom of speech arguments have moved well beyond the state orbit. On social media for example, many seek to defend racist debates and those who calls them out are told they are infringing on freedom of speech and/or that they should learn to tolerate being ‘offended’. But this logic is flawed. Firstly, the notions of ‘the right to offend’ or ‘political correctness’ although, the law may not have caught up, conceals the real and empirically documented psychological and physical harm caused by racist and discriminatory speech. We are, therefore well beyond the offensive and firmly in the domain of the harmful. What is being consequently argued for is not freedom of speech, but at best freedom from the consequences of the harm one causes or at worse, freedom to do harm.

Second, by seeking to bar those directly concerned by the contents of speech who should have in turn no right of retort since expressing opposition, dissent or offence (e.g. accusing one’s expression of being racist) would create…offence, those who find speech harmful or otherwise objectionable are deprived of their right to freedom of expression since they are asked to be quiet. This is thus an act of silencing. Elsewhere I have proposed that silencing may be enacted by individuals with more social power, thus in the context of race white individuals, claiming or believing to be victims of silencing, whereby they may make persecutory claims in relation to individuals of colour by positioning themselves as being gagged, when they are challenged.

Thus, in addition to quieting and smothering, I would propose another practice of silencing which could be called insidious reversing. In insidious reversing, the oppressed is insidiously positioned as the oppressor often covertly or indirectly. The silencer becomes the silenced and therefore the harm marginalised bodies suffer because of their marginalised identity/identities, which they attempt to vocalise as speaker and to conceptualise as knower is invisibilised. It is clouded or replaced by the discomfort the audience experiences in a projective role reversal. This is a distinct epistemic practice of silencing which is widely observable socio-politically and which others have also noted although not named.

Insiduous reversing may be performed through the use of affect. So that in situations where discrimination is alleged a disproportionate amount of time and energy may be spent coddling, reassuring and or placating white people distressed by racism, including accusations of racism made against them, cementing the false equivalencies that already exist between between suffering racism and being accused of racism and, depriving the marginalised person of support, of compassion or attention. Insidious reversing thus results in the most socially powerful gaining additional safety and protection against the harm they inflict on the marginalised in a socially sanctioned centring of their hurt feelings associated with their pseudo victimisation.

Insiduous reversing is particularly likely in situations where those constructed as fragile are held to account by someone who belongs to a group constructed or stereotyped as dangerous or aggressive. For example, it has been known that women of colour feel they have to choose their words and demeanour carefully when expressing grievances or speaking of their distress when the perpetrator of such violence is a white woman. The binary positions these identities occupy in terms of strength, vulnerability and innocence render women of colour particularly vulnerable to become positioned as the aggressor in these epistemic exchanges. Thus, in insidious reversing what we make visible and speak of may not necessarily result in testimonial quieting or in the discrediting of one’s testimony and/or in testimonial smothering or in self-silencing, but in accusations of doing the very harm one attempts to speak of epitomising the words of Sara Ahmed, when we speak of a problem, we become the problem.

Concluding thoughts

The practice of silencing people of colour and marginalised bodies generally, their social concerns, and their/our lived experience has a long history. In essence, the current freedom of speech argument demands that accountability, challenge or resistance to speech as violence be quashed. It weaponises freedom of speech to force those expressing dissent or resistance to the violence they experience into compliance and submission. It denies those with less social power not only freedom of speech, but also the right not to suffer discrimination-related harm. As such it amounts to a demand that the social and psychological realities, and lived experience, of people of colour be ignored, an act of epistemic violence. Although appearing to seek freedom to speak, it is in fact an act of silencing, a censorship act. Insiduous reversing is another practice of silencing which attempts to shift the burden of responsibility for social harm from dominant groups to marginalised bodies in epistemic exchanges. It leaves marginalised bodies vulnerable to more violence and further exclusion. In the context of race, it follows a reproduction of wider relational configurations and the traditional direction of power.

Thank you for reading

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of Race Reflections. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.

The tears of our mothers: trauma and its transmission

My mother rarely cried.

Yet there were so many, so many reasons for her to. There was so much distress around us. Neighbours, relatives and friends came and cried on her shoulders. Many came to our house to seek refuge. To seek safety. To seek guidance. To seek nurture. I can only remember vividly one of the very few times I saw my mother’s tears. That was when her own mother died. Other tearful times have blurred in my mind but I am certain they were mainly related to the death of loved ones.

I am a crier.

It took me a while to make peace with this but, I am a crier. It is very easy to for me to tear up. It has always been. Mostly these days I do not feel too self-conscious, although I occasionally still do and when I do, I hide. Many mammals instinctively hide when ill, wounded or weak. Perhaps as humans we are equally capable of displaying this behaviour at times of vulnerability. Particularly when those around us depend on our resilience and on our silence. Perhaps this is also partly why my mother rarely cried. But not all tears are tears of sadness although, they mainly are. Very rarely they are tears of joy. Sometimes tears of anger. Sometimes they are tears of fear.

My mother rarely showed fear.

I do not have any memory of seeing her afraid. Not a single one. As I write this, I hear how both incredible and incredulous this sounds. But it is the truth. And, there is a part of me that is in complete and utter owe of her fearlessness. Her courage. She needed it for all the battles she had to take on. Can you even begin to imagine the courage and determination it takes to survive colonial violence, turbulent decolonisation, civil and genocidal war, divorce, patriarchy, brutal racism and xenophobia all in one lifetime? This evades my comprehension. It truly blows my mind. We often omit our mothers’ resistance when we think about feminism. When we think about defiance. When we think about survival.

Survival amidst sustained destruction and annihilation attempts, is the ultimate defiance. I think that I have inherited something of her fighting spirit. A humongous gift. The gift of survival, I call it. However unlike her, I have struggled with ‘anxiety’. I have for a long time. Although it took me a while to even understand this. And it’s been a journey. I rarely have panic attacks these days. But unsurprisingly, my mind does tend to wonder towards the darker side of human possibilities. I have learnt to catch it when it does. I can redirect it. Although I am not always successful.

Intergenerational and historical trauma

I think about intergenerational trauma, a lot. Something that is grossly neglected within psychological and mental health practice in the U.K. This absence makes little sense. This absence is evidence of its presence. Our standard clinical conceptualisations of trauma continue to be highly individualistic and centred on the psychological consequences of exposure to adverse events on individuals. For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) refers to trauma as an ‘emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster’ and further adds that ‘longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical’.

My mum did not experience shock. She has never been troubled by flashbacks or other psychological distress related to her experience of violence. In fact, she rarely spoke of the hardship she experienced or saw. In France and before that, in Africa. Some of what I know of the harm she has experienced, I know because I have directly witnessed it occurring. Some of what I know, I have known by doing research into the political landscape she lived through. Some of what I know, I have caught in conversations with my parents within which atrocious acts were described, in passing. In the most mundane of ways.

Acts of mundane humiliation and banal degradation. Stories of death and destruction were rarely recounted but when recounted, were recounted nonchalantly. Mainly though, it is stories of everyday, normalised dehumanisation that I have heard. Stories of being required to bow one’s head to white people. Stories of being whipped within white Christian missionary schools. Stories of being spat at. One anecdote in particular has stayed with me. It was recounted by my step father as one of his formative experiences. It is the story of a white manager in Brazzaville disciplining a black employer by asking him to open his mouth, spitting in the gaping orifice then asking the black man to swallow the phlegm. A perfect allegory, I have always thought, for colonialism.

These stories of whimsical and gratuitous brutality and sadism were told without any emotion. Many remain with me. When we think about mental health and in particular about the ‘excess’ of psychological distress in people of African and Caribbean backgrounds and in people of colour more broadly, it becomes clear that it is very specifically the second and third generations of displaced groups or ‘migrants’ who tend to carry the bulk of the distress. One can’t help but wonder how much of that distress actually belongs to older generations, sometimes to generations long, long gone.

Much empirical evidence suggests that trauma may be passed down through generations. Historical trauma and intergenerational trauma conceptualisations consider the impact of trauma beyond immediate or individual exposure. Historical trauma has been defined as the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding across generations, including the lifespan, which emanates from massive group trauma (Brave Heart, 1999). The definition highlights the impact of trauma or mass atrocities and its transmissible if not contagious, quality.

Intergenerational trauma overlaps with historical trauma. But while historical trauma is centred on mass violence and group level atrocities, intergenerational trauma need not involve mass or group violence to be in effect (although the complication is that in practice it often does…) it simply refers to the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next, usually within the same family contexts. While we do know that trauma transcends those directly affected and that it moves across time and space, our understanding of how exactly this occurs is still limited.

The collective and social unconscious

Jung’s collective unconscious is posited to be a structure of the psyche distinct from Freud’s so called ‘personal’ unconscious. Whilst our personal unconscious is posited to be a repository for unacceptable sexual or destructive fantasies/wishes or impulses, the collective unconscious encapsulates group level cultural inheritance which is acquired independently from personal experience and which is instead, the product of collective experiences, knowledge and symbols/archetypes thought to be biologically inherited. The social unconscious is the group analytic/Foulksian extension of Jung’s initial concept. It designates the co-constructed and shared unconscious of members of a particular social system such as communities, societies, nations or cultures. Although the operation of the social unconscious evades our conscious awareness, it provides meaning to all our communications and relationships and seeks to reproduce in the present, past arrangements and relationships.

Proposing that a part of our unconscious mind is collective and transmitted via genetic or epigenetic pathways means that individual consciousness is at least in part, predetermined and shaped by events that took place before our existence. By our collective past. For both Jung and Foulkes this includes the experience of our ancestors as well as their wounds and trauma. This historical material exerts a powerful influence. It shapes how we behave, how we see the world, how we relate and quite fundamentally again, it continually strives to reproduce itself. That is to say, the primary function of group unconscious mechanisms is to ensure the survival of ancestral modes of being, feeling and thinking as well as the reproduction of past social and political configurations.

Very few scholars have interrogated the mass trauma of colonialism and it’s correlate with contemporaneous geo-political violence. I have long hypothesised that there likely is a direct link between 1) historical levels of colonial violence and contemporary political conflicts within former colonies and 2) the very type of past violence and current manifestations of violence within the same zones. The social and collective unconscious are helpful tools to think about the contemporary reproduction of colonial violence within former colonies since they posit that part of our unconscious aims to structure the present in line with past social arrangements.

I do not believe it is coincidental that the parts of Africa which were turned into rape and torture camps and human butcheries sanctioned and/or orchestrated by European colonial powers, continue to experience some of bloodiest conflicts on earth. Any basic group analytic or analytic formulation of these traumatic events would see on-going mass violence and political turmoil as related to past atrocities. Evidence of a collective memory. The continuing psychic legacy of colonial violence and its re-enactment in the present.

The reproduction of trauma

Although social and collective unconscious conceptualisations partly allow us to understand the transmission and reproduction of trauma, there are other mechanisms at play, particularly when we’re entering the domestic or family domain. Psychoanalytic investigations of intergenerational trauma in Holocaust survivors, found that projective identification was a core mechanism by which trauma was transmitted. Anxious parents who projected Holocaust-related feelings and anxieties into children often had children who introjected them and would as a result, behave as though they had directly themselves experienced concentration camps and other Nazi atrocities.

When we think about intergenerational trauma things can get very abstract and very conceptual very quickly, making it difficult to recognise the everyday psychological legacies of historical trauma, particularly if we do not have analytic tools. This is arguably unhelpful and provides fuel for further skepticism and resistance. However, if we break things down and move away from formal analytic formulations, the manifestations of intergenerational and historical trauma and their transmission can become more obvious, for more of us to recognise in our life, for example;

– We may feel compelled to seek retribution or revenge for the harm or, injustice that has been inflicted onto our ancestors

– We may feel compelled to repair or undo humiliation or degradation inflicted upon our parents perhaps by overachieving

– We may reproduce cycles of harm and abuse in our life so that we experience the pain, hurt or suffering our ancestors or parents experienced

– We may harm and abuse our loved ones or those closer to us identifying with historical perpetrators/aggressors

– We may stop ourselves from experiencing joy or happiness or engage in self-destructiveness out of loyalty for those who have suffered or indeed been destroyed

– We may seek to protect those who have been harmed and become compelled to overlook or forgive their mistakes, contribution or complicity

– We may feel compelled (or indeed be designated) to experience feelings or emotions which were too dangerous to express or experience by those who came before us, mourning on their behalf

– We may become hypersensitive to or triggered by events or incidents which harmed our ancestors even if we were not personally exposed to them

– We may deny, minimise or dissociate from the violence which our parents or forebearers experienced and/or blame them for the same

– We may become suspicious, distrustful or aversive to groups or individuals who have historically belonged to perpetrator groups, groups who carried out violence against our forbearers

Concluding thoughts

What I hope to have started to illustrate by sharing a little bit of my mother is that so many of our tears, so many of our fears are not ours alone. Sometimes we cry for those who could not or were not allowed to cry. Sometimes we feel fears that do not only belong to us. It is clear that harm, abuse and trauma which came ‘before’ us and affected ‘older’ generations, that of our parents, our grandparents, our ancestors is not beyond us. Despite not/not fully belonging to us, this can have long lasting consequences for us not only in terms of psychological functioning, but also in terms of social and geo-political configurations. In the case of projective transmission of trauma, unprocessed affective states may be passed on through fearful and terror filled gazes. Trauma can also be transmitted biologically and through stories, and sometimes through silences. In any case, and even though this challenges so much of what we have been taught and are socialised to believe, an individualistic lens to conceptualise trauma seriously limits our understanding of human harm and of the consequences of violence.

Thank you for reading

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The music of black souls

With music, I am almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure. Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me’ Freud (1914)

‘I am black. I am the incarnation of a complete fusion with the world, an intuitive understanding of the earth, an abandonment of my ego in the heart of the cosmos and no white man no matter how intelligent he may be can ever understand Louis Armstrong and the music of the Congo’ Fanon (1952)

Music and the self

I have been thinking about music and about writing about music for a long time. I am not entirely sure where I am going with the present piece, I have not written in a little while but I have been thinking. About African music in particular and, my attachment to it. But also about music and love. Music and sex. Music and intimacy. Music and roots. Music and liberation. Music and connection.

I am not a musicologist but it’s no secret that I am a music lover. I listen to all genres although I do have a sweet spot for African music particularly for Congolese music.

It is a strange experience. Each time I try to write about music, I struggle. I usually find things that are deeply meaningful, can be the hardest to ascribe intellectual meaning to and so I wonder about the depth of the issues, about the root of this thesis which may make vocalisation hard. Perhaps this is because this vocalisation is attempting to translate into conceptual language what is best spoken through the language of the body and the senses. Still, I want to give words a chance.

I have been wondering why black people and white people at group level at least, dance so differently. Why we differ in how we move. I think it speaks something of our relationship to our body. Our relationship to the world. With the erotic. With intimacy. I continue to be curious about how we’re socialised to occupy space so differently. How we learn to move, respond and hear different rhythms and how this in part, says something about domination and power.

I think our relationship to the musical holds important cues about how we inhabit the world and how we relate to it that can be difficult to speak meaningfully to, outside of the embodied. That it speaks of our connection to others and, our connection to our self but also to the past and, to the universe and, our place within the same.

Splitting, fear and mastery

The quotes above capture something of this tension. For Freud, music is clearly evocative of fear, of danger. Fear of losing control of the self, of relating to or being in the world outside of a rational frame of understanding. The fear of being thrown into a dark abyss and entering a realm where the self is experienced as out of bound, ultimately unknown, verbally indescribable and intellectually ungraspable. A fear perhaps of the preverbal, perhaps even of the unconscious, of the repressed. A fear of losing self-mastery thus mastery of the so-called ‘primitive’ Other that exists within.

Engaging with African music at soul level necessarily takes us to a different realm of communication, a different world of sense making, a dimension which fundamentally challenges linear and dualist engagement with the world and separatist worldviews. The opposite of Cartesian mind-body dualism. An engagement that connects rather than splits and separates thus consequently something that calls for unity, integration and interconnectedness.

Music has long been associated with spirituality and transcendence of the self. In the West, this relationship was lessened during the so called enlightenment. As I have previously noted, individualism or disconnection from the sensory realm, the spiritual and natural world, make it easier to rape, murder, dominate and destroy the planet and to rationalise the same away.

And so we can see that sensory mastery and control of the unconscious, betray a colonial relationship with the self and the world and the reproduction of capitalist socio-economic configurations. Music, particularly African rhythms invite us to re-connect to the natural world, to ourselves and to others in an intimate manner. This intersection of multiple subjectivities, across generations and history is a rich source of life and meaning.

Music and heritage

When I was a child the nostalgia filled stories and memories of my parents were recounted to the sound of Congolese drumming (sebene) in the background. African parents are not culturally the most routinely demonstrative when it comes to love or affection. Particularly when it comes to romantic feelings. Not those of my parents’ generation anyway. But they danced rumba. And rumba dances are pretty much the only occasions I remember my parents showing each other affection and staring lovingly at each other’ eyes in public.

Rumba is a sensual and fluid dance. It is quite erotically charged too, like so much Congolese music, yet it has a tenderness and intimacy at its core which makes it bonding and connecting.

My parents and migrant and displaced parents generally do not consciously seek to pass on their love of music or the traditions and stories carried within the music they listen and dance to. All the same, music carries through time and space personal and group histories. Passing on music is thus also passing on heritage, culture and again, connection. With this transmission, collective knowledge, worldviews, healing and resistance practices are shared and thus, survive.

The musical experience transmits implicit and explicit messages such as freedom, trust and, an attitude of openness to what comes, the celebration of the body or of the erotic, harmonious union. I do not speak the language of my ancestors but I can dance to the same drums and my heart vibrates to the same rhythms and so somehow we can still be at one. I find this incredibly vital to my wellness in this world. I have previously argued that one of the reasons that there is so much psychological distress among the second or third generation of so called migrants within the African diaspora and those even further removed, is in part because of this disconnection. Disconnection from ancestral lands, cultures, ways of knowing and being.

This disconnection is amplified in contexts of exclusion and marginalisation. This cultural homelessness that so many of us have to learn to be at home with, is constantly triggered by everyday micro aggression and subtle othering messages within white supremacy. It is within this sense of homelessness that so much intergenerational trauma resonates and that it is carried through, beyond individualised coping and resistance strategies, there must therefore be community-level healing which nurtures the soul and strengthens our bonds, music has always had this potential.

The politics of African music

When I started individual psychotherapy, a few years back I shared in an early session that I loved African Music with my then psychotherapist. I will never forget her response. She looked intensely at me after I spoke these words. I observed her carefully. We remained silent for a minute or two, she eventually remarked, ‘I can better understand why you would be experiencing some of difficulties within structures’.

A part of me was puzzled by her response. Another must have thought it understood since I did not seek any clarification or asked her for an explanation. Something about my affinity with African rhythms caused her to pause and to think. Something which perhaps spoke to a structural mismatch, my dancing to different drums. Perhaps it was evidencing some kind of cultural if not epistemic clash, perhaps a rebelliousness. Perhaps a defiance. An irreverence. Certainly this is how I now make sense of it all.

There may be more than a kernel of truth in this swift assessment. It is clear that my love of Congolese music is deliberate. In a context of anti-blackness and anti-African hatred or contempt, we are all socialised to both despise so called ‘primitive’ African artistic and intellectual productions and to exploit them, in the same breath. This is how the Master operates, remember?

So, there are many of us who miss out on African art and creations to their own prejudices and the decolonisation they’re still to engage in within themselves. I do not believe it is possible to love and revere all music inspired and rooted in African beats, rhythms and traditions and truly dislike the source or original, it does not make much sensory or intellectual sense, unless you factor in whiteness.

African drums are good for the soul. They ground and heal. And my love once more, is political. In the same way one may choose to wear an Afro not only because they’re beautiful but also out of defiant conviction, we can choose to remember the culture of our ancestors or heritage rather than assimilate it away within white supremacy. By embracing that heritage, we choose to resist. We choose to trace the traces of our being through time and space and we honour those who came before us.

Concluding thoughts

Drumming has been repeatedly found to have positive effects on trauma related distress. It seems to me we could all learn from this ancient healing practice used to build community, restore wellness and seek liberation. A remedy that comes free with African music…Evidence also suggests building racial or ethnic identity strength may be a powerful buffer against racial trauma and racism related distress. Another reason for us to engage with ancestral or parental culture. But that is not all, for Fanon, being and indeed being black, represents living in this rhythm, in fusion, connected to the world in a way that allows access to deep meaning and truth through means that are not necessarily dependent on rationality. It is trusting the self enough to let go, to abandon it to the forces of the universe. Without wanting to essentialise whiteness or blackness or even magnify racial binary constructions or contrasts, I think there is something in this perspective that is dancing around what I am grappling with. A connection that is deeply spiritual. An ancestral truth. An experience that transcends words and which is a source of wellness and power. Perhaps a song that can only be danced rather than written.

Discography

For a few of my favourite Congolese tunes, click here.

References (not hyperlinked)

Fanon F (1952) Black Skin White Masks. London: Paladin.

Freud S (1914) The Moses of Michelangelo”. Standard Edition, Vol. XIII, p. 211.

Thank you for reading

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of Race Reflections. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.

The pathologisation of activism

Activism and struggle-activism

This article is concerned with social change and particularly with change agents. So I started this piece by looking at basic definitions of activism. They naturally abound, here are three. Activism according to the Cambridge dictionary is ‘the process of campaigning in public or working for an organization in order to bring about political or social change’. The Collins dictionary proposes that ‘an activist is a person who works to bring about political or social changes by campaigning in public or working for an organization’. Finally Oxford dictionary suggests that ‘activism is the activity of working to achieve political or social change, especially as a member of an organization with particular aim’.

I am not sure about these definitions. I am not sure that activism necessarily entails organising, organised action or even taking a public stance. When I wrote the skeleton thread which inspired this piece, I used activism to encapsulate all actions aimed at effecting structural and social change, although I accept doing so is not without problems either. In truth a concern for and involvement in the struggle for social justice and liberation is more what I have in mind. Thus, I would call this kind of activism, struggle-activism. Struggle-activism I would say is much more transparently rooted in one’s active and on-going struggle. Activism as an integral part of the struggle for survival. As a necessary tool to resist injustice, inequality and oppression.

Struggle-activism carries higher levels of risks because it always involves activism in the mist of some harm or wrong personally experienced and often on-going. It is rawer because the trauma of injustice has to be negotiated live, as it occurs, as we refuse to be bystanders in our own structural experiences. But as we take a stand however, our action transcend our own experience, our system focused change directed action, effects change beyond ourselves. Students organising to hold professors who have sexually harassed them within their institution, is an example of struggle-activism.

Drapetomonia and Rascality

Within the mental health system, various mechanisms have been employed to suppress and punish dissent, resistance and quash or pathologise struggle-activism or concern for social justice. Potent examples of such practices are illustrated by the diagnoses of Drapetomania and Rascality. Drapetomania was believed to be an inheritable but preventable ‘mental illness’ that caused enslaved Africans to run away and flee captivity, often repeatedly and always against their best interests. Their best interests of course being dutifully serving their white master. The short paragraph below describes the causes and serious risks of the illness which of course included getting into contact with dangerous abolitionists and presumably, being enlisted to fight against the institution of slavery and/or being emboldened in one’s freedom aspirations.

‘The cause in the most of cases, that induces the negro to run away from service, is as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation, and much more curable, as a general rule. With the advantages of proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many negroes have of running away, can be almost entirely prevented, although the slaves be located on the borders of a free state, within a stone’s throw of the abolitionists’

Rascality scientifically known as Dysaesthesia Aethiopica on the other hand, was a disease of the mind characterised by laziness, defiance, lack of work ethics and mischievous behaviour. This mischief was clear. It was always related to indifference and disregard or to the sabotaging of the interests or property of the master. Contrary to drapetomania, Rascality could helpfully be recognised by clear physical symptoms which were visible e.g. marks and lesions on the back of the sufferers evidencing not only their insensitive skin but also their diseased mind. Rascality was such a serious and communicable disease it led to countless rebellions, the liberation of Haiti and thus, instilled fear in the hearts of white slave holders the world over.

‘From the careless movements of the individuals affected with the complaint, they are apt to do much mischief, which appears as if intentional, but is mostly owning to the stupidness of mind and insensibility of the nerves induced by the disease. Thus, they break, waste and destroy everything they handle, -abuse horses and cattle, – tear or burn or rend their own clothing, and, paying no attention to the rights of property, steal others, to replace what they have destroyed. […] They slight their work, -cut up corn, cane, cotton or tobacco when hoeing it, as if for pure mischief’

Black dissent and resistance as illness 

It was Louisiana based physician Samuel Cartwright who discovered drapetomania and Rascality (Dysaesthesia Aethiopica) and reported them to the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal on diseases prevalent among the black populations of the South of the States. The diagnoses took off as slave owners and overseers readily recognised them. All of this is of course unscientific and utter nonsense (arguably like most diagnoses of ‘mental illnesses’ today, but that’s not what we’re discussing here). All the same, these diagnoses were attempts at ensuring that Negroes remain ‘the submissive knee-bender’ they were intended to be, by nature. And, that god’s plan, beautifully aligned with white men’s capitalist plans. God works in mysterious ways, they say.

The management of drapetomania included cutting off big toes, foots, lashes deep in the flesh and when the case was too severe or advanced, death. In the case of rascality, the first steps it was recommended to cure it, were to attend to the wounds and lesions on the back of the slave (in case this was not clear, injuries inflicted while disciplining the sufferer) if this failed, beating them with a leather strap (thus creating more lesions) then, attempting again to make the slave work. In either case, treatment for these ‘mental illnesses’ were about returning the slave to their original position. A position of unopposed, compliant and productive servitude.

A century or so later, racism could still be evidenced in diagnostic practices which have arguably remained tools to maintain the racialised social order thus white economic interests. The diagnosis of schizophrenia for example, had until the 1970’s in the States been used to diagnose largely non-violent white petty criminals became racialised and disproportionately applied to African American men from urban areas who were concerned with civil rights and thus again…freedom. And so conveniently, the second edition of Diagnostic Statistical Manual DSM-II added ‘hostility’ and ‘aggression’ as signs of ‘schizophrenia’ to capture this new development in the manifestation of the ‘illness’, racial belligerence and protest in the mist of the civil right struggle; ‘protest psychosis’ (Metzi, 2009) became recognisable manifestations of schizophrenia, evidencing once more, the undeniable relationship between mental health practices, and the pathologisation of dissent.

Being stuck on racism

This historical context also reminds us that mental health disciplines, psychiatry and medicine have long histories of racism. But more than that, it tells us something of critical significance about the role the ‘sciences of the mind’ have played in the production and reproduction of the dominant values of society and how deeply invested in the status-quo thus, in the maintenance of the racialised social order, they have been. We can also see that the practice of silencing black people, their social realities however violent, however unjust, however torturous, however traumatic, has been normative and that those seeking to challenge or change unequal structures have always been at risk of pathologisation and violence within health systems.

My first exposure to this pathologisation was early in my psychology journey. Maybe about 12-15 years ago. This was in London. A psychologist, a woman of colour complained to me about black patients she was allocated to work with, within a culturally specific service working exclusively with black people. She bemoaned, ‘it’s impossible to work with these patients, they’re stuck on racism’, then casually walked away, angry. It took me several years to even come close to grasping the racism contained within this simple statement and the history it laid bare. It is only recently that I got in touch with the anger revising this experience now triggers in me. Perhaps partly because it speaks to me personally.

By way of background, the group admonished for being ‘stuck on racism’ was a group of service users/patients who have received some of the most adverse mental health ‘care’ imaginable. Some had spoken about police officers sitting on their back during arrests or mental health staff restraining them to the point of broken bones. All had been deprived of their liberties. Then experienced racial harassment or stereotyping within mental health systems. The context is a context where black people remain more likely to be diagnosed with ‘schizophrenia’, more likely to be detained against their will, more likely to be over-medicated and more likely to die within systems meant to care for them, than any other group on this land. Inequality well documented.

Analytic thinking and the social order

The context is therefore one of institutional racism amidst interpersonal experiences of racism. Despite this, that these vulnerable patients, clearly harmed and traumatised by racism would use their space to try to give their experience a voice, created irritation and disparagement. There are various ways in which experiences of everyday racism, concerns for social justice or activism can be pathologised or dismissed. All amount to racism. Thus, being stuck on racism has echo of ‘lacking psychological mindednesses’ a notion which has been used for centuries to support the psychological thus alleged intellectual inferiority of black people. A limitation in their ability to psychologise their experience. Evidence of a limited capacity to reflect and be introspective in relation to the same rather than evidence of them speaking to it in a way that simply does not fit neatly into white individualistic apolitical therapy frameworks.

All schools of therapy have the potential to do this and indeed do this to various degrees, although here I mainly focus on analytic practice where those who seek to change systems and activists have tended to be looked upon with contempt and/or considered immature psychically, defended or resistant to true insight. A deficit based assessment of their psychological functioning which is reliant on various interpretations all based on the decontexualisation of injustice, inequality and trauma and on the tacit premises that the world as is, sits outside of the realm of our operation or psychological functioning and relational configurations and, that non-engagement in its politics and structures, is desirable and healthy.

Following on from this logic, concern for social justice or racism are often interpreted as an act of displacement. Displacement is a defence mechanism that occurs when negative feelings related to an object/person are transferred to another usually less threatening object/person. In shifting targets, the mind finds a safe outlet for the expression of emotions, impulses or wishes which would be too overwhelming or anxiety provoking to express towards the actual source of the conflict. Therefore, activist efforts may be seen as a manifestation of some latent conflict rooted elsewhere, usually in our initial object of attachment or primary group, i.e. our family.

With displacement, the failure or deficit thus lies in not understanding that this concern with social justice is evidence of a disturbance located elsewhere. It is not ‘really’ about the socio-political or about the violence we experience in the material world, but about our internal worlds and its configurations. Therefore activism has a long history of being interpreted as displaced anger toward an authority figure from our past usually a parental figure, often the father. An alternative or concurrent interpretation would be that one is defending against anger towards the analyst.

Now it can get a lot more harmful. Where oppression related violence or any retaliation you may experience for your change focused action may be interpreted as unconsciously wished, an enactment of sado-masochist impulses, for example. This is how we can in the analytic literature, find views of colonialism being the unconscious wish of the colonised or the consequence of some inherent pathological predisposition in them. Another way of saying that really deep down they wanted it or, they needed it and, thus invited it. Unconsciously. Equally disturbing, the same logic is often applied to all sorts of violence, including sexual abuse.

Working and thinking at multiple levels of functioning offers us the richest formulations and understanding of the world. Thus, I would not as a matter of course, reject analytic interpretations however far-fetched or convoluted they may appear. They offer a symbolism that can be helpful and, of course can help us make sense of more unconscious dynamics and motivations. The issue thus is not that those interpretations exist as units of meaning. Meaning making that does not resonate and is problematic can be discarded. The problem is that they become the only lens, unreflectively employed if not imposed, to formulate activism, resistance and dissent and, that opposing them can often lead to even further pathologisation. Human beings are complex. One behaviour can serve multiple functions and be attributed to multiple units of meanings, both conscious and unconscious, both social and psychological. Sometimes they may be contradictory but often they can co-exist. Still, the exclusion of socio-political analyses of activism, the refusal to engage with the structurally located lived experience of people of colour has significant implications, not least the protection of the status-quo. It consequently amounts to complicity and collusion.

Concluding thoughts 

Activism can be a defence. Not all defences are problematic or ‘immature’ (e.g. sublimation). There are plenty of reasons those seeking to change systems and struggle-activists may be vulnerable, not least, the violent responses they trigger precisely because they resist and, because of their history of having been harmed by the systems they seek to change. And again, there may well be unresolved conflicts (whatever this means) in our history. There are, for most people. All the same, the pathologisation of the impulse, wish or engagement in social change continues to be a way for the mental health professionals to uphold the status quo thus, white supremacy. The defensive functions of these analytic or diagnostic devices also need attention. Indeed, we can see them as defences on the part of the therapist/analyst. Acts of denial and repression. The refusal to engage with the reality of racism and oppression or injustice more broadly. Similarly here, these defences may serve multiple functions. Psychologically or psychically: the avoidance of guilt, shame, helplessness, or the contemplation of complicity; socially: the upholding of white supremacy, the invisibilisation of whiteness and, relationally: the enactment of discursive or epistemic power and the reproduction of historical relational configurations.

Thank you for reading

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of Race Reflections. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.

Location of disturbance, UK politics and racism

The bad apple fallacy

This week-end I wrote a short Twitter thread attempting to apply the group analytic concept of location of disturbance to the current political context in the U.K. Principally, I was arguing that when controversial political figures like Johnson known for their racism get to power, we are quick to regard them as individual political mishaps rather than as manifestations of structural or collective configurations and dynamics. This is the logic of the bad apple theory which has been used from time immemorial, to distance ‘ourselves’ from those violent systems, we’re all a part of.

I proposed that locating the problem or disturbance in Johnson is in reality unhelpful, in that it takes us away from how he was supported to rise to power -– despite his overt bigotry — the millions of Brits who stand by him not despite but, precisely because of his bigotry and his brand of overt, unapologetic racism (and homophobia and misogyny) which has nostalgic appeal, offers to so many an outlet to speak, what they dare not say, through his mouth and, to ‘resist’ this so called ‘political correctness’. I further posited that our focus on Johnson amounts to splitting of from ‘our’ own bigotry or complicity in racist systems.

It is indeed harder to consider that Johnson’s violence speaks something much more important than him and lies much beyond him as an individual politician even if he is the prime minister. That it serves functions for us as a collective or group and that it would not have come into being but for our collective ‘pathologies’. A few people following my thread, have asked for some reading to better understand the concept of location of disturbance. And I was glad! I have been transparent about my passion for group analysis, and the important insights it can offer us to understand what is going on in the world and in particular to formulate, whiteness.

Group analysis

I tried to oblige, with requests for reading, then quickly realised there was very little writing on the phenomenon that was accessible which took me to this piece. So, I am taking this opportunity to extend this thread and elaborate on the concept using everyday examples, I hope most people will be familiar with. The location of disturbance is central to group analytic scholarship. Thus, in order to understand location of disturbance it may be helpful to have some basic understanding of group analytic thinking. As a starting point, let’s provide a definition of what group analysis is. It is defined by his founder, as follow;

“The method and theory of group analysis is concerned with a dynamic understanding of the inner working of the human mind as a social, multi-personal phenomenon” (Foulkes, 1975).

In essence, group analysis is a psychoanalytic psychotherapy framework which focuses on the unconscious dynamics and communications occurring in groups as well as; a scholarly domain or method for investigating and formulating dynamics, structures and processes as located within particular socio-historical contexts.

There are a few premises that inform group analytic thinking. Including, the existence of a shared or collective psychic life, a transpersonal and transhistorical field within which we communicate, interact and derive all meanings (referred to in group analysis as the group matrix). The fundamental social nature of human beings and the belief that individuals function primarily in groups e.g family, institutions, social structures.

Not only does group analysis posit that we cannot exist outside of these groups but, that these groups exist within us. Another core premise is that individuals cannot be understood outside of their context and social networks. Finally and as an extension of the above; interconnectedness. The individual and the group or their contexts/networks are in constant communication and interaction and as such, are interdependent, co-constitutive and thus inseparable.

The location of disturbance

In analytic thinking disturbance can be taken to refer to a problem, a dysfunction or pathology which give rise to distress or difficulties in broadest possible sense. Common examples of psychological disturbance include all ‘mental health problems’ or other behavioural challenges such as a child suddenly becoming aggressive or refusing to eat. Traditional formulations of such difficulties within psychoanalysis and psychology at large have tended to be quite individualistic either, intra-psychic (e.g formulated through drive theory) and later dyadic (formulated through the exploration of infant-mother/parent relationships).

Group analytic conceptualisations of disturbance is fundamentally different as any disturbance is thought of as group phenomena. Disturbance accordingly is conceptualised as a disturbed group communication which may become apparent in the ‘here and now’ and within specific individuals but, which is only however a focal point for more distal phenomena involving them -– as individuals — but also transcending them. Disturbances are communication within the matrix which involve the whole matrix (Foulkes, 1983). The concept of psychological disturbance in group analysis is thus always dynamic, social and relational in nature, that is to say the disturbance is located in between people and, speak of a particular context.

What is being said here, is that no disturbance can ever be confined to or attributable to a single person or entity. Rather, the distressed or disturbed individual or the crisis is thought of as the site, the symptom of a problem belonging to a larger unit, to a collectivity, a group, an institution etc…which can therefore be conceptualised as owning or also providing the genesis for that problem/disturbance and in some ways; benefit from the same.

Who does the problem belong to?

Disturbance is believed to always be distortion, dislocation or displacement of group or social phenomena. It takes various forms depending of course on contexts including individual histories and social histories. The job of the group analyst (when practising psychotherapy) is to correctly locate and explore disturbances and to attempt to solve them inside their context or within the group itself by regarding themselves (as a group member) to be part of the disturbance/problem. In other words it is to ask who or who else does the problem belong to? Who is involved who is here and, who is involved who is not here, and how? What are the payoffs? And what histories are being reproduced? Always primarily, unconsciously. Let’s consider some of these questions through a couple of illustrations.

The sleepless child

A child has started waking up during their sleep. In the middle of the night, they awake afraid, having had nightmares. They quickly form the habit of seeking refuge in the parental bed and find sleep easily in between both parents. The latter initially keen to soothe the child, allow them to spend the rest of their night in their bed. In time understandably as the situation fails to resolve itself, they get frustrated and focus most of their waking communication on the child’s disturbed sleep and it’s impact in turn, on theirs. As the parents get impatient with the child, the child also in turn becomes more anxious and is now rarely able to spend more than an hour or two in their bed at night.

The uncontained black member

A reflective group is joined by one person of colour, the only one. She is black and initially welcomed by the group who says is keen to have someone of a ‘different’ background. Julie, the newest group member very quickly notices micro-aggressions and other forms of exclusionary behaviour which clash with verbal/conscious communication and discourses of inclusion the group holds dear. She raises the matter and attempts to get her peers to understand the impact of their micro behaviours on her. Although she appears to be listened to, there is no verbal engagement with her experience. The covert behaviours remain and her recurrently raising the matter results in her being ignored and eventually marginalised. Julie becomes overtly distressed, angry and emotionally uncontained and is eventually excluded from the group.

The concept of location of disturbance as we have seen is used to describe and understand symptomatic behaviour which may be exhibited by an individual but which fundamentally is a representation of a much wider, largely unconscious group dynamic (Stobo, 2005).

This symptomatic behaviour can now be thought of as a group defensive mechanism which exists to sanitise the group and help the group preserve its ignorance vis a vis its own wishes which can be projected onto an individual who can then become the site of disturbance or indeed a scapegoat. The sleepless child in the first illustration became the manifest location of the disturbance. Their disturbed sleep became so difficult to manage for the parents, that it led to frustration and anger in them.

Whilst their attention was focused on the child, we may easily imagine that the couple may have had significant marital problems which they struggled to articulate. Indeed it is not unusual for a child’s sleep to become disturbed not when they themselves are experiencing difficulties but, when parents struggle with intimacy, frequently due to one or both of them having/recovering from affairs wether they are known or not to the other party (please don’t panic! I am not saying every time a child’s sleep is disturbed, it is because of affairs…however, an important line of enquiry would be to be curious about intimacy and communication patterns in the couple).

Location of disturbance and racism

The child is symbolically and physically acting as a separation or barrier between the parents which may in fact be unconsciously wished. Their presence can prevent couples not only from addressing a potential loss of sexual desire or libido but, also conveniently prevent them from talking about difficulties in their relationship; they can now focus on the child’s apparent sleeping difficulties. Disturbance often occurs in groups when critical communication or meaning cannot be articulated. Often, because they are too painful. Too threatening. And cannot therefore express themselves in words but through an individual disturbance who can come to act out or feel what cannot be spoken; within a particular group or system.

The failure of words, which is a failure of containment is consequently central to the genesis of disturbances. Social and psychological.

Stobo (2005), one of very few, possibly a handful or so of black group analysts in the U.K. was the first to use the concept of location of disturbance to contribute to the elucidation of race dynamics in groups. She proposed that the silences that occur when racism is raised, serve to regulate and maintain a psychic equilibrium within groups. That this silence holds and stands for a space in between white groups and people of colour (although she principally writes from a black perspective). And specifically, that this space holds the fear and terror of something which is too difficult, if not impossible to articulate.

Specifically, our shared and trauma laden histories of imperialism, colonialism and enslavement. What is feared and too painful to put into words is a discovery or acknowledgement of racism. We can use this formulation to understand Julie’s experience and the group’s responses to her. Julie was initially welcomed into the group who no doubt, saw itself as liberal and possibly above racism. And so unsurprisingly, as Julie tried to articulate the racism which was becoming manifest and targeted at her, this could not be contained, it was too much to bear for the group. That the racism was subtle and covert actually evidences this further. The group was conflicted about its racism and could neither express it or look at it directly, when invited to.

As Julie attempted to translate their unconscious racist communication by directly confronting it, the difficulty in communication thus again in containment in the group — the group disturbance — became located or rather manifest in her. The unexpressed and intolerable conflict manifested as a disturbance which she was selected, as the only black object, to carry the burden of. Alone. Containing the disturbance led to her becoming uncontained, distressed while white group members could through their lack of emotional display maintain a facade of ‘objectivity’, emotional maturity, detachment and separation from the disturbance they had actually co-created and which indeed equally belonged to them. Succeeding in excluding Julie and therefore in splitting off from their racism.

Concluding thoughts

It was my exploration of the current political context in the U.K. that led me to this piece on location of disturbance. From that lense, we could start to interrogate the open bigotry of our government as symptomatic or manifestation of group processes. And, consider that ‘we’ and certainly all white groups may be playing a part in this political drama. Perhaps here too the problem’s latency is located elsewhere and involves everyone rather then simply key hateful figures. Perhaps this is why so many feel gratified by Johnson’s bigotry. And support him covertly or overtly. Current forecasts indicate Johnson is leading the polls by 19 points, this really forces us to reconsider who the problem belongs to. Traditional psychoanalysis has tended to focus on the patient as an entity which could be extracted from their environment and social context. An environment further assumed to be benign as the default. Similarly, by focusing on individual political figures, we risk vilifying them and whilst this vilification may be legitimate and more importantly gratifying, it stops us from owning the problem and considering our contributions and complicity to the mounting overt hatred and violence and their associated inequality. The group analytic concept of location of disturbance forces us to think harder and to include ourselves in that thinking.

References (excluding hyperlinks)

Foulkes, S. H. (1983). The location of a disturbance. (1st ed., pp. 127-131) Routledge.

Foulkes, S.H. (1975) Group Analytic Psychotherapy Method and Principles, Maresfield Library: London.

Stobo, B. (2005) Location of disturbance with a focus on race, difference and culture. Dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the Master in Group Analysis (Unpublished Master Dissertation), Birkbeck College: London.

Thank you for reading

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Anti-Blackness, intimacy and the fear of death

‘How afraid we mortals are of such a closeness,

Perhaps we will be swallowed up and lose ourselves,

Perhaps we will die. 

We try to keep our separation at all costs, Afraid and afraid

Marjorie Pizer, ‘Intimacy’, Poems (2014).

Intimacy is one of these words that can be hard to put into words. An embodied word. A feeling word, that comes with baggage. It evoke closeness, nurture and safety, to me. But I also know so many of the fears it can give rise to. Intimus, in Latin is the superlative of inside. The primary meaning of intimacy is accordingly, to be in contact with one’s own inside, one’s internal world and by extension that of another. The capacity for intimacy is thus both the capacity for human contact and the capacity for self-contact. Something about how people communicate, separate and are willing or unwilling to merge with the Other, tells us something about intimacy and, about sensuality. Intimacy cannot happen without merger. It requires exposure and psychic penetration. The crossing of ego boundaries with another some have said, as such, the willingness to be permeable. And, vulnerable. In this piece, I use intimacy as a lens, together with sexual desire and death fears (thanatophobia) as an analytical framework to formulate anti-Blackness.

Intimacy, the other and the self

Although intimacy manifests in the domain of the interpersonal and specifically in how comfortable we are with others, it is arguably primarily an intrapsychic process. Or, it is at least based on an intrapsychic blueprint so that our capacity for intimacy with another is necessarily contingent upon our capacity to be intimate with ourselves. This may sound a little odd for some to read. But essentially, what is being said, is that our capacity connect with ourselves, to be at home within ourselves and to tolerate or bear all that we are, is intrinsically linked to our capacity to be in contact with and to tolerate others. And indeed Others.

When we find proximity to others unbearable or too anxiety provoking, we are often said to fear intimacy. Intimacy fears exist on a continuum. Most of us will struggle with them to various degrees at some point, some much more than others. Those who have experienced abuse, neglect or other disrupted early attachment or losses often find intimacy more challenging. And for good reasons. Often, they would have faced the reality of annihilation and; the possibility and proximity of death. And so they have adapted, as human beings do, learning to keep others at bay as a way of protecting or defending against further existential threats, boundary breaches or violence.

The fear of intimacy is widespread. It is arguably the existential angst by excellence and, it can have many meanings and symbolism. At its most basic, intimacy fear is the fear of closeness, psychologically and/or physically. Usually both. It is the fear of connection and, the fear of psychological contact. It can mean the fear of being seen or the fear of seeing oneself thus, the fear of mirrors. But also, it is the fear of losing oneself in others, the fear of disappearing, of being ‘swallowed up’ or annihilated by the other. Consequently, the fear of intimacy cannot be meaningfully separated from the fear of death whichever way one looks at it. There is always that ‘perhaps, we will die’ conundrum.

Individualism in its extreme form is said to inhibit connection, attachment and empathy. One may argue as a result, that individualism is a defense against human contact and intimacy. Another form of ego protection, and arguably too a tool to facilitate violence against the Other since detachment or dissociation mean brutality can be enacted without it ever being fully experienced. Any examination of the defensive functions of racism will invariably confront splitting (and thus projection). Indeed, what is splitting fundamentally, if not the fear of contact and intimacy with the self.

Fear of blackness, fear of death?

Racial hatred has long been considered to be a form of protection against these aspects of the self or the world, one cannot tolerate. Defense against one’s sexual urges. Defense against one’s immorality or sense of depravity. Defense against the fear of the unknown. Defense too against existential terror or threats. Thus, more broadly, protection against uncertainly, powerlessness, and again against fears of annihilation. Some of our most primal anxieties.

That blackness has become the repository of disown and intolerable material or content is not a new thought. It is in fact one of the oldest psychoanalytic formulation of racism. Similarly the negative connotations or symbolism attached to the word black have long been noted (Malcolm X and Fanon, have written in my view the most compelling deconstructions of the linguistic and etymological origins of Blackness). From dirt, uncleanliness and illegality, to dishonesty, bestiality and depravity. There is one particular symbolism which is of particular significance here; death. Black has been used as a signifier of death and dying for centuries. Across various cultures. In western countries in particular, ‘we’ wear black in mourning practices as exemplified by the ‘black widow’.

This is significant. Since as human beings we are constantly engaged in denial and in avoidance manoeuvres when it comes to death, if the black object has come to symbolise death, we will do all we can to avoid its proximity, in the same way we try very hard to avoid staring death in the face. We lie to others, particularly to children. We also lie to ourselves. We distance ourselves from those who remind us of our mortality. Blackness from that standpoint, like death, is the ultimate otherness, the ultimate unknown. Terror management theory proposes that death anxiety drives much our thinking and behaviour. We shift our worldview, exaggerate our importance, construct fantasies of omnipotence because we cannot fathom the reality of our insignificance in the face of death. In that vein, we may see the controlling of the black body, as an act of displacement. As a way to master ‘our’ fear of death. Racism and in particular anti-Blackness can be conceptualised, it follows, as a defense against making contact with death.

Whiteness and the fear of contact

Intimate potentialities differ from person to person as we have seen, often based on psychohistories and, in particular on experiences of interpersonal trauma. The capacity for intimacy also varies from place to place and from culture to culture. Corporal arrangements in space, tell us something about intimacy and thus about intrapsychic configurations. If we agree that fear of the black object, the ultimate Other, is necessarily the fear of projected material, including existential angst related to one’s mortality, then the fear of blackness is the fear of the self. So, avoiding contact with Blackness is fearing making contact with the self or at least, part of the self. It is fear of Intimus.

One of the most basic fear related to racism is the fear of contamination. Of note, how does one get contaminated? Via contact. Foreigners, immigrants, racial ‘minorities’ have been constructed as the bearers of diseases and germs. The promotion of fear over health risks at times real but mostly exaggerated if not fantasised, is still central to immigration discourses and, it is instrumentalised to legitimise draconian border controls once more, echoing the recurring link between death anxiety, the Other, and other-self boundaries.

This link at least in part reflects a deep-seated wish to maintain white racial purity without which whiteness could not stand. It is therefore related to the need to protect white supremacy. And of course, widespread concerns over racial purity (although today mostly expressed covertly or indirectly) would not exist in a context where sexual contact with and, sexual desire for or interest in the black (masculine) object, were non-existent. Blackness and in particular Black maleness is a constant threat to the reproduction of white supremacy because of the heterosexual desire it is feared to evoke in white women.


Masculinities, sexualities and intimacies

There is a well-documented ambivalence towards proximity and intimacy in ‘the West’. The space between bodies is notable. In places populated by black and brown bodies, bodies are generally closer to one another. They are often confined to smaller spaces. Bodies touch, psychologies enmesh and co-shift. Any observant traveller would have noticed variance in corporal proximity. How much intimate sense, in the literal meaning, you can have of the other. How much or how little of the other you can access through your senses, your sense of touch, of smell, sometimes even of taste. The interconnection between empire, whiteness and masculinity has been amply theorised and, any attempt to explore anti-Blackness via the prism of intimacy, cannot be agendered.

Dominant masculine norms have been hypothesised to be in direct opposition to emotional expression, intimacy, and vulnerability. (Cishet) male gender role socialisation often leads to difficulties with intimacy. Western individualism has been generally thought to promote autonomy rather than dependence and interdependence and with, that less permeable boundaries; replacing some have argued, the desire for closeness and intimacy with competition and a thirst for destructive and abusive power.

It is no surprise in this context that intimacy has been feminised and that emotions have been attached to beings constructed as less mature or intellectually sophisticated: women, children, and people of colour who, as we know are ruled by the world of senses, the body and libidinal impulses rather than rational thought, objective detachment and discernable judgement. The feminisation of intimacy and emotions mean that the suppression of psychological contact, has been used for the advancement of capitalism and the furthering of the colonial project under the guise of reason. Objective hatred. Rational violence.

Although sex can entail intimacy, in the colonial context, it has usually been manualised and instrumentalised and, devoid of psychological contact. Perhaps we may say, sex has been used as a proxy for contact when contact was prohibited and/or intolerable. The colonial encounter illustrates something of this ambivalence towards intimacy. And white intimacy with the black female body has been complex and contradictory. From the breastfeeding of white infants by black maids, to the keeping and impregnating of black ‘mistresses’ by slave holders and colonialists, violent sexual intimacies and non-consensual sexual contact have endured in the mist of segregation. Deep physical joining amidst psychological separation. In that sense, one may note that on the one hand, European colonialists carried out voyages spanning weeks if not months to get to or to get closer to these foreign lands and these ‘savage’ beings, on the other, once there, elaborated Othering fantasies were constructed to establish a safe psychological distance.


Christian complicity 


And again, on the one hand, one imposed violent geographical thus physical boundaries between whites and the colonial subject, on the other, access to colonised bodies and their consumption were regular imperial practices.

That anti-Blackness is founded on fantasised fears of black sexuality is significant here much beyond biological and racial purity concerns. The fear of Blackness encapsulates not only desire for the black body, as a sexual object and as a sexual subject, as often what we fear we desire…It represents a psychic pull (and resistance) towards all that is socially prohibited, unthinkable and intolerable thus repressed including, lust, dirt, temptation, greed. All that is improper. All that is so systematically split off from the self. All that is evil and ‘id’. All that is unchristian.

Christian history, as a reminder is an extremely brutal one. It is a history in which intimacy has meant exploitation, oppression and violent death. Of people of cultures, of ways of life, of epistemologies, of natural habitats. Christianity and what has been termed the Christian imagination has deeply coloured and shaped racial dynamics and, our understanding of the world. It provided the life blood of European colonialism. It helped whitewash white supremacy for centuries by enforcing a strict puritain ideology, racial divisions and, the dualist separation of body and mind/soul, which I have argued elsewhere fed racial violence, splitting and repression fuelled conflicts. In 12 years a slave, these issues are poignantly and viscerally captured.

The brutalisation Pasty suffers at the hands of Epps her slave master in the mist of regular prayers and sermons speaks of the kind of violent intimacies Christianity promoted within the Antebellum period. Throughout the movie we watch Epps consumed and so painfully conflicted by the sexual attraction he feels towards his slave Patsy. We see him go from admiration to contempt, from ‘affection’ to hatred and from ‘care’ to sadism often within a matter of instants. One of the most powerful and distressing scene in the movie is the night we witness him rape her. Unable to contain his sexual urges Epps creeps into Pasty’s quarters and forces himself onto her as she lays motionless and expressionless, possibly in a dissociative state. Possibly in a survival posture, instinctively adopted because of the grave perils she is indeed under.

After Epps climaxes, he stares at Pasty for an instant and as he sees himself, starts hitting and punching her in the face. Then attempts to strangle her. He has succumbed to the lust of the (black) flesh. He is almost instantly consumed by shame, then later in the movie, by fear. Not shame at the harm he has done to Pasty, as this would entail psychological contact, neither fear for Pasty’s welfare, as this would require less narcissism. Rather, Epps feels shame at what he was no longer able to repress. And fears the wrath of the Christian god he prays to, will turn to him because he has transgressed and trespassed the colour line. Pasty is left paying the price not only for Epps’ repressed then unleashed sexual impulses but also, for his damaged Christian and virtuous self-concept.

Concluding thoughts

To be authentically human, means coming to terms with our mortality and inadequacy. Heidegger famously calls this being-towards-death. Blackness offers a convenient hiding place for fears, anxieties and, projections of one’s inadequacies. Of one’s shadow self. It has allowed white groups the ability to maintain the illusion of superiority. And of freedom as they have sought so violently to restrict that of others. In doing so they have however, enslaved themselves too. Psychically. Using intimacy as a lens and, examining  concomitant fears of sexual desire for the Other and thanatophobia, can help us understand how racism has historically become enacted, as well as the gendered performance of anti-Blackness. Heidegger posited that it is only in being-towards-death that one can truly come to be. If so, perhaps being-towards-blackness is an imperative to connect to the self, to life and to learn to form authentic relationship with all others.

Thank you for reading

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of Race Reflections. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details

Finding Black Joy Amidst Black Pain

‘If you look at the world as one long brutal game between us and them, then you bump into another mystery. And that’s the mystery of the tree-shaped scar. There seems to be such a thing as grace, such a thing as beauty, such a thing as harmony. All of which are wholly free and available to us’ (Morrison, 1975)

Black joy as anomalous

As I write this piece I wonder about timing. Toni Morrison has passed, it was just a few days ago, and at this hour of deep sadness for so many, I am trying hard to remember one of the lessons that I take from her work. The mystery of the tree-shaped scar. The importance of finding joy and beauty within ourselves and in this brutal world. Beauty and joy amidst the dehumanising and violent reality of white supremacy. Joy in the mist of pain.  Powerful instructions in their simplicity. Powerful also in their humanity. Something that reminds me of the genius of Morrison. Her mastery of the art of making the complex and sophisticated not only accessible but so viscerally beautiful. And so relatably human. 

There are not many moments in my lifetime when I can honestly remember a collective sense of Black joy. Perhaps a handful of moments. The coming out of Black Panther last year was such a moment. Black joy could be found in abundance, and it was heart warming to experience. At least for some of us. Sadly with that joy came a significant backlash, or whitelash to be precise.

I have observed it mainly online. I have seen its bitterness in places of employment and in random conversations with white strangers too. Simply seeing Black people feeling joyous over a movie that centred them, attracted vitriol and much racism from white folk. I recognised this dynamic and how deeply loaded it was. I nonetheless took it to Twitter where I often check and test my thoughts and ideas. It resonated, as expected. Hundreds came out to comment and confirmed that they recognised it. Many shared experiences of the dynamic. Including white people. It was clearer than ever in my mind. So many find Black joy intolerable.

Black joy disturbs because it is humanising and because it is transgressive of the social order. If you think about it, the hoarding of material resources by those with social power is the hallmark of colonial and racialised capitalist relations. This structural reality still leads to internalised expectations of priority which can be observed for example, through everyday grievances such as ‘they’re taking our jobs’. They being of course, those racialised Others.

Black joy and whiteness 

The conviction that jobs that you have not performed, that have not been offered to you, that you may not even be qualified for or be willing to do, ‘belong’ to you or an entire group, simply based on whiteness is the height of narcissistic white entitlement. Between feeling entitled to material resources and, feeling entitled to psychological resources or states, there is a thin line, if indeed there is a line. A sense that good fortune, joy or other ‘positive’ affective states and experiences should first go to white groups, is omnipresent in society too. In that sense, ‘they’re taking our joy’, is a genuine grievance within white supremacy, although it may not be spoken in these terms. The anecdote below may help illustrate this.

A couple of years ago I was involved in a disturbing exchange at mother’s, in France. I had just returned from Paris (she lives just outside the city) with the kids who I had taken out for a treat. As we returned, I found one of her long-term friend, distressed. Her husband had been in a bad way and had had a double amputation as a result of complications from his diabetes. That friend, let’s call her Marie, had been coming to my mum, eating our food, crying hot tears for years and years. She had been in financial troubles, struggling on benefits for as long I can remember. Marie it is worth stating is a white woman. So, as I see her distraught, I ask her what is wrong and if her husband is ok.

She cries louder as my mother holds her hands. She’s sick of this shitty country she says then declares, ‘I’ll be voting for Lepen, because when you’re Black or Arab in this country, you get everything but people like me struggle, with no support’. She drops these words casually. In front of all of us, my children included as I repeat, my mother is holding her hands. Then she adds, ‘I’m sorry for people like your mother’ at which points, she almost stops weeping. I was so taken aback, words failed me. My mother did not flinch. I could still see the warmth in her eyes. She dried her friend’s tears.

Marie again, is a long-term friend of my mother’s. She’s been a permanent fixture in most of the family events. Births, weddings, birthdays. She knows of some of our struggles. None of us are actually dependent on state benefits. But in a moment of pain and suffering, her racism jumped out. She’s suffering and we’re comfortable or at least, look it. Something does not add up. We should be suffering since we’re Black, something is off and, she’s being scammed. Clearly these imaginary ‘socially progressive policies’ which provide for the ‘Blacks and Arabs’ and which leave her, a white woman behind, are to blame. White people should come first. She should come first.

Sadism and joie maligne

This experience hit me hard at the time. I tweeted about it and had to take a break to process it. Racism had found its way into our home and showed up in my mothers’ living room. Something in the image of my mother holding these white hands as she was being hit in the face, hit me right in the heart. This image will stay with me for a long time, if not for as long as I live. This disinhibited cruelty toward a friend who has shown you nothing but love, compassion and nurture needs attention. There is something about it which speaks to me about that so-called ‘economic anxiety‘ and of ‘white anger’. Something that so poignantly captures the whitelash and neo-nazism of our time. Something too that is about whiteness’ compulsion to inflict pain, particularly when it feels threatened in its place, in the social hierarchy, thus something about sadism.

Sadism is all about deriving pleasure often sexual, through inflicting pain, discomfort or suffering onto others. To derive such gratification, emotional (or physical) cruelty, manipulation or threats are often employed. There has been much theorising of sadism within the psychoanalytic literature not much though (surprise, surprise) has linked it to race dynamics. That is an oversight worthy of reflection too given so much of race relations is rooted in sadistic and sexual violence. I have written about these issues in my neuroses of whiteness piece. Within it, I posited that white envy is a core dynamic underlying racism. Envy and sadism are intrinsically linked. Envy often leads to sadistic acts and both psychological dynamics can result in pain and suffering in Others. The function of pain in sadism however, is pleasure per se, while in envy pain is more of a by-product (which can be equally gratifying) of the desire to destroy in order to return to some psychological equilibrium.

I have previously proposed that envy is a way of reclaiming in the targeted objects, something lost through our own projections. It would be difficult to make sense of Marie’s reaction without touching upon envy ‘s impulse to destroy and harm and jealousy’s impulse to possess. These are feelings and impulses in any event that are socially sanctioned. We ‘Blacks and Arabs’, including the Blacks who are feeding her, are living a good life, a pain free life according to Marie and, this is a cause of disturbance to her. The callousness Marie displayed in her being prepared to throw her best friend ‘under the bus’, and the disregard for the impact of her words and indeed vote on those she considers her friends, is further evidence that us experiencing pain and suffering would appease her turmoil. Even the anticipatory thought that we would suffer should Lepen be brought to office was enough to bring her some relief. Perhaps even some joy. She calmed down.

This anticipatory joy, is what the French refer to as joie maligne which would roughly translate as ‘malignant joy’ in English (Schadenfreude in German). The feeling of joy we experience when faced with the suffering of others. Others’ pain and affliction are conceptualised as a sort of psychological capital used as faire valoir or as a reminder that others suffer too in those moments unhappiness strikes us. This capital is believed to ease our pain. French philosophers have written we experience satisfaction through joie maligne because we all suffer from an existential malaise linked to inherent human insecurities, fear, anguish, pain, regrets, suffering etc… Joie maligne allows us to feel equal to others when we see them suffer, which helps us manage feelings of inferiority. It equalises us.

On being deliberate

‘There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilisations heal… I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.’ (Morrison, 2015)

Wether we formulate Marie’s reactions using joie maligne or sadism, there’s obviously something about black pain that is deeply, deeply satisfying to whiteness and therefore these psychological dynamics must be racialised. Doing so is complex and unpleasant nonetheless these very dynamics can be triggered when white supremacy is challenged. They have sustained centuries of white terror;  unspeakable violence, torture, lynching, rape, mutilation, mass murder. Today the violence of the past is arguably no longer. I stress here, arguably. Some of it has transformed and adapted in the same way white supremacy has shifted. Some of it however, continues to shape social expectations and relational configurations. Some of it has permeated our social unconscious. Some of it has been internalised by us all. All of it continues to impact how we relate and, our capacity to find joy. In Black people and in white people alike. Many come to see me because they struggle with finding joy.

Finding joy in intimate relationships. Finding joy in connection. Finding joy in sex. Finding joy just existing in the world, while Black. When you can’t find joy for long enough despair can come knocking and it is easy to let it in. Morrison reminds us, there is no time for despair and that we cannot afford to indulge in self-pity. Make no mistake, these are harsh words. They are harsh, but they are kind at the same time as they are also full of love. The kind of tough love Black mothers give, the gift of survival. I think about joy much more these days. Perhaps because I have had my own struggles, but I have learnt that many of us have to work hard at finding joy. And, that this quest must be strategic and that it must be deliberate.

But this can be hard to hear. Despair is easy. Some will resent me for writing this, but I am writing it all the same, despair is easy. I can so easily fall into its embrace. I know how to feel at home in the darkness. It’s a familiar place. But again, Morrison is right. There is no time to stay there for too long. We struggle in ‘our’ culture, I think to celebrate and to mourn at the same time. The few funerals I have attended were a mixture of sorrow and happiness. Of cries and laughter. Of pain and of joy. This is the part of my African ancestry that has survived migration and displacement. The capacity to contain that complex ambivalence, is a life force. Morrison dug deep into the depth of our human experience; she gave it central stage, always leaving us feeling seen. Including the scars we’re left with on our back. She shifted the gaze and unapologetically taught us we were worthy of love, of care and of experiencing joy. And above all that doing so was not only possible amidst Black pain, but that it was necessary.

What a wonderful way to honour her that is to practise seeking and experiencing joy. In its fullness. This is not about turning away from the painful and the violent but it is about making efforts to notice the beautiful. Intentionally. Every day. This is about deliberately trying not to drawn in the world’s misery or, to be disappeared by the fury of white supremacy and the entitlement and sadism it breeds. If only temporary, it is to breathe easy. And if only for a few minutes at a time, it is to engage with the fullness of our humanity. What a beautiful habit to try to form. It did not come naturally to me either. But I am deliberate in surviving and I see beauty in thriving, a beauty so many want to rob us of. It helps when I ‘count my blessings’. I try to be thankful for them. I try to catch the little acts of kindness. The smiles. The warmth. The support. The humorous aspects of the absurdity of racism. My indulgement in writing. My breaking of silences. But also the sun caressing my skin and emboldening my melanin. The music and art that move my soul, the food that feeds it too. And the holding of hands.

The humanising hands of my mother even while under assault.

I may not always succeed. But I try.

I try because I need to.

Centering on Black joy is not about dismissing or creating an “alternative” Black narrative that ignores the realities of our collective pain; rather, it is about holding the pain and injustice we experience as Black folks around the world in tension with the joy we experience in the pain’s midst. Black joy is healing, resistance and regeneration. The two, joy and pain, are not mutually exclusive, and often we need the latter to get through the former’ Kleaver Cruz, The Black Joy Project 

Thank you Toni. Eternally.

Thank you too for reading.

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On bodies that don’t belong

Home and belonging

The concept of home carries multiple meanings and symbolism. The ultimate home, arguably is the womb. As such it represents (although does not always provide) sanctuary, nurture and protection. Home also has a geographical and homogenising dimension. It is a place rooted in a particular socio-historical location wether real or imagined, which gives us a sense of ‘us’, a collective continuing identity sufficiently distinct from other groups.

Psychologists have long recognised that belonging is a primal human need, we are after all social beings. In Maslow’s hierarchy for example, belonging is located midway between basic physiological/safety needs and esteem/achievement needs and, self-actualisation, whatever that means. Belonging needs include having fulfilling interpersonal relationships, intimacy, trust and affiliation. Affiliative connections are fostered when we feel part of a group.

A home thus is also a place of kinship and connection to a cultural collective and from which we can draw a sense of who we are from. Nonetheless, it can also be a site of conflict or more precisely a site of contestation with clear links with power and whiteness. It is with that latter meaning that this article will primarily engage; although of course all meanings will bear some relevance. Considerations of homeness therefore include but go beyond, the individual and their sense of belonging and have serious implications for the psychosocial and the structural.

Where are you really from?

The mother of (racial) microaggressions… Microaggression have been described as brief everyday indignities. They can be verbal and non- verbal and either intentional or unintentional, but all the same communicate hostile, derogatory, prejudicial messages to marginalised bodies. Microaggressions as their name indicate are acts of micro violence but, they are full slights and leave their targets feeling othered, denigrated, devalued or excluded. Microaggressions can leave you somewhat disorientated too, as their subtle and contestable nature may make you doubt your own reality and leave you, questioning and second guessing yourself and your experience, over and over again, hours if not days, after the casual act of Othering.

Thus although, ‘where are you from?’ may appear to be an innocuous question, when your body is black or brown and in white supremacist contexts, it is a loaded question discursively and historically. And it is a question that often hurts. It hurts because of the invisible assumptions it contains. It is therefore a question that does more than ask a question, it is a question that makes statements. It states that you look like you do not belong here. It states you are not quite part of this ‘us’. It states that there is something exotic or unusual about your body that is worthy of curiosity and attention. It is thus a question that can violate your sense of home.

As a French migrant in the UK recurrently I find that my French accent attracts curiosity. ‘How come you have a French accent?’ I am often asked.  It took me a while to decrypt the implicit messages and make sense my body’s response to the question. I came to the realisation, it is really another way of saying ‘where are you really from?’ Your home is not your home or at least is not what appears to be your home. It’s all in the English subtlety…Many will not get it. They will argue that there are plenty of people with French accents who are not French.

This is how microaggressions work. And how they injure. Embodied knowledge is difficult to share and does not easily translate. But let me try. What if I was to write, I have been referred to as the woman with the French passport, the woman who speaks French, the woman with the French accent probably as frequently if not more so, than I have been referred to as the French woman, would the point land? It’s difficult to imagine that if my body was white and held a French passport, spoke French and had a French accent that so many would struggle to locate me as French.

If you don’t like it here, go home 

A few days ago the President of the United States told four congresswomen women of colour to ‘go back’ to their (‘crime infested’ and corrupt countries) instead of ‘loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States’ how to run the government. All of the women targeted are American citizens. Only one of the politicians insulted was actually born outside the country. And of course, part of their job as lawmakers is indeed to tell their country, the United States, how they think the government should be run. These facts became immaterial to the thousands who chanted in unison ‘send her back’ as Trump spat his racist bile. It is clear then that being black and brown, reduced both their claim to the land as their home and, their authority on the politics of the same.

As previously written, this country, which quite likes to see itself much above the politics of hate, saw a rise in hate crimes post-Brexit. Some have said many have taken their (white liberal) gloves off, emboldened by xenophobic and racist referendum campaigns. And quelle surprise, one of the most recurrent abuses to have made a comeback — though we could easily argue, it had really never left — is ‘go back to your country’.Fantasies that the leave win would result in black and brown people being sent back to some Other land, their *real* home, came out en force.

That the bulk of these abusive words were targeted at British people of colour with no other home tells us something important about home and belonging. Once again that these notions are racialised. More than they are nativist. Being home here is clearly not dependent on being born here. It is primarily about belonging and specifically looking as though you belong. In the same vein Trump did not target white skinned politicians born abroad. Nor has he ever asked white political opponents to leave the country if they don’t like it here. Pretty basic stuff. Still…many are continuing to deliberate on whether his words were racist, with many denying they were. This is the state of race literacy in 2019. Or the depths of white denial. 

Last February, Shamima Begum saw her UK citizenship removed from her for joining the so called Islamic State, while aged 15, by the then home secretary Sajid Javid. This was not a decision without controversy, but it was not a decision without support either. Stripping those who have committed serious offenses of their nationality may appear perfectly legitimate and racially neutral, until one realises that it is only possible to strip someone of their UK nationality if they are eligible for citizenship elsewhere and doing so would not leave them stateless. In the case of Begum, who is reported to have been born to a mother of Bangladeshi descent, it was assumed that she had in fact another home or, a real home in Bangladesh. This is despite Bangladesh denying her citizenship and her entry into the country.

Precarious homes, precarious identities 

Without engaging with the legal arguments, it is possible to assess one key implication of this decision. If both of your parents are British and you have no possibility of claiming citizenship anywhere else in the world, you will have no access to dual citizenship and, are therefore protected from ever being deprived of your UK nationality. In other words, it is really disproportionately people of colour, migrants and their children who are in reality at risk of losing Britain has their nation, rendering the policy at best racialised. At worst, white supremacist because it reinforces the pernicious and utterly racist discursive notion that ‘real’ Britishness is anchored in bloodline and, peddles the mythology that Britain is not the real home of people of colour. That they are eternal guests who can be sent packing, when required.

Precariousness to state homelessness intersects with experiences of homelessness at other levels and impact people of colour’ sense of identity. For example, people of colour and migrants are also at risk of cultural homelessness. Individual of dual or multiple cultural heritages are said to be culturally homeless when they report a sense of marginality and insecurity whereby they do not feel fully accepted within either cultures, leading to recurrent feelings of ‘not belonging’, isolation, identity confusion, and a constant quest to finding a home. Navigating two or multiple cultures can be emotionally taxing and when one feels no solid grounding anywhere or experience double or multiple discriminations, the psychological costs can be significant.

Racial violence today is often subtle, pernicious as such it can easily be denied (and indeed is constantly denied) which can also increase distress and isolation and, lead to what I have termed epistemic homelessness. You may think about it as response to racial gaslighting. I have proposed that epistemic homelessness is the subjective experience of losing anchor in a situations of epistemic injustice or when people in position of social power deny or invalidate your lived reality. The sense of homelessness here is a form of embodied displacement from one’s truth base causing self-distrust and the devaluation of our bodies and minds. Homelessness is again reproduced but not only does one loses their sense of internal home, it becomes inhabited or colonised by people with more social power.

Whiteness and homeness

I often say whiteness belongs. I have argued this is one of its fundamental characteristics. Belonging in that sense is independent of cultural affiliation rather, it is rooted in white supremacy. Hence, white Africans are naturalised. Black Europeans remain an aberration, in the collective imagination. Or at best a ‘new’ phenomenon, erasing the reality that Britain has never been exclusively white. In the same way that inhabiting of Others’ space geographically, geo-politically or epistemically, is a function of social privilege, belonging wherever one finds oneself, reflects the racialised social order.

I used to have this white ‘friend’, she had been born in the Congo, she spoke Lingala. She used to love telling me about her country the Congo but would still subtly raise her eyebrows when I spoke of my country France. I did not belong in France, but she sure belonged in the Congo. Belonging is rarely a two-way street, because power and colonialism has rarely been. That is why new white Europeans migrants to the US can, with full assurance, tell African Americans who have been on the land for centuries to go back to where they come from. They belong much more. Entitlement to space and claim to the same are rooted in the historical configurations of colonialism which are anchored in the white European psyche. They get reproduced at all levels of human functioning, often despite ourselves and unconsciously.

That is why the presence of white people in space is usually deemed legitimate hence, it takes very little time for them to acquire native status; often above and beyond the indigenous populations whose land they settle in. Imagine telling Trump that he is in fact a migrant living uninvited on colonial land whose rightful owners are people of colour. A historical fact. And that if he does not like people of colour telling him how the country should be run, he can always leave and go back to where he came from. It would amuse. But you can be certain that he would roll his eyes and, that society will, by and large, discount these words as an aberration.

He is a white man. He belongs. And that’s that on that.

Thank you for reading

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word. All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of Race Reflections. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.